Terrorising ourselves

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on how our vulnerable society risks doing al-Qaeda's dirty work for it.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Why do terrorists need weapons of mass destruction any more?

The Washington sniper trials confirm that it now takes one man and a boy with a rifle and a second-hand car to terrorise America’s capital city. And why would al-Qaeda need to attempt another ‘spectacular’ in the West? The reactions to the Istanbul attacks show that a couple of suicide bombers can now cause a security panic in Britain and America by hitting soft targets in faraway places.

These days the West does not miss an opportunity to advertise (and so promulgate) its fear to the world. We might as well issue an open invitation to terrorists to terrorise us some more.

Take the reaction to the horrific Istanbul attacks. Our news reports immediately agreed that there was ‘no doubt’ that these bore ‘all the hallmarks’ of al-Qaeda’s global vendetta. When the bombers were identified as Turkish, the story changed to say that they must have been ordered, financed or just ‘inspired’ by al-Qaeda.

In fact, many terrorism experts now agree that al-Qaeda does not really exist as an international organisation with a central command. Where al-Qaeda is strongest is in the fevered Western imagination. We have blown Osama bin Laden up into the symbol of all our post-September 11 fears. Any ambitious but tiny terrorist group can shake the world by invoking bin Laden. Not surprisingly, three separate factions have claimed responsibility for the Istanbul attacks in the name of al-Qaeda.

We play right into their hands by interpreting those bombings as an assault on Britain. True, the targets were the British consulate and a London-based bank, and four of the 30 dead were British. But the ‘they’re after us!’ reaction went far beyond that. One newspaper’s front page headline was: ‘BRITAIN UNDER ATTACK’. The words ‘Turkey’ or even ‘Istanbul’ were nowhere to be seen; it might have been reporting a bomb in Islington.

The extent to which the West now distorts the world through a fearful lens is clear from the Washington sniper trials over the spate of shootings that left ten dead and three wounded last year. John Allen Muhammad, a US Army veteran, has been convicted not only of murder but also of terrorism under new laws introduced after September 11. Why was shooting a civilian at a petrol station considered an act of terrorism? Because, the court ruled, Muhammad had put the local population in fear. This was a trial to judge what he had done, but also a therapy session to deal with the public’s terrified feelings.

A jury will decide today whether Muhammad should face the death penalty. Virginia law allows a murderer to be executed only if there are ‘aggravating factors’, one of which is torture. Prosecutors tried to argue that Muhammad was guilty of psychological torture on the grounds that ‘people were faced with considering pending death’ every time they left home during the sniper’s spree. In addition to murder, it looks like Muhammad has been found guilty of being the bogeyman.

Whether in Washington or Istanbul, terrorism is not just about what a few fanatics do. Its success depends on how we respond. A society that is sure of itself and what it stands for will be better equipped to respond robustly to bombs or bullets. But those apparently traumatised by uncertainty and fear present a far softer psychological target. It does not need a powerful enemy to exploit the frailties of a country so disoriented that Denis MacShane, our Foreign Office Minister, can be hammered for daring to endorse ‘the British way’ when criticising Islamic terrorism.

Our self-loathing, self-terrorising, self-consciously vulnerable society risks doing al-Qaeda’s dirty work for it.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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